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Why Yemen Is Like Scotland — and Could Be a Choke Point for a Lot of the World's Oil

It's too early to describe the fighting in Yemen as a new theater in a broader Arab-Iranian war, but Yemen has a long history of being fractious and unpredictable.
Photo by Wael Qubady/AP

The current conflict in Yemen has a lot going for it. It's got tribal and clan affiliations, al Qaeda, Shia/Sunni splits, vast untapped oil reserves, poverty, kleptocracy, autocracy, made-up countries, and nationalist delusions of grandeur. It's a cornucopia of causes of Middle Eastern conflicts, but without tedious Palestine-Israel nonsense, apocalyptic ISIS snuff films, and partisan told-you-so sniping. It's a hipper, more interesting Syria without all of the Western political baggage.


If you're in a hurry, you can chalk up the current fighting to the perpetual Sunni-Shia rivalry that seems to fuel just about every big power struggle in the Middle East. This is from an article I wrote last year about the fighting in Iraq:

A common, but not entirely accurate, way to characterize the Iraq conflict is as a fight between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. The Shia-Sunni split is a perennial fallback explanation for conflict in the Middle East among folks in the West. However, in a guns and money sense, the fighting in Iraq and Syria is really part of a long, ongoing proxy war between the two major regional powers: Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Although Iran is Shia and Saudi Arabia is Sunni, the conflict between these two isn't because they are natural enemies; rather, it is because they are natural rivals, and religion serves as a marker of convenience. Both countries are giant, wealthy oil-rich countries that share geography, so rivalry seems inevitable. Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the rivalry was kept to a dull roar by the US, but since then things have just deteriorated.

The same thing can be said of what's happening in Yemen.

Still, Yemen is definitely unique, a sort of cross between an Arab Scotland — a fractious people in an incoherent country who are beset by romanticism — and the cantina scene in Star Wars. Until 1990, Yemen was split into two countries, North Yemen and South Yemen. North Yemen and South Yemen were, respectively, the… western and eastern parts of Yemen. And the country of South Yemen (a.k.a., the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen) actually reached farther north than North Yemen (a.k.a., the Yemen Arab Republic). Both Yemens reunited peacefully in 1990. They then proceeded to engage in a post-unification civil war.


Related: Al Qaeda frees inmates at prison as fighting intensifies in Yemen

Lots of civil wars have resulted in chunks of countries splitting off, but it takes mad genius to run that process in reverse. Of course, Yemen has hosted a sizable number of civil wars and rebellions in the region's 5,000 year history, including individual civil wars within both North Yemen and South Yemen.

The sheer oddity of this North/South Yemen naming business is as good a place as any start deciphering this whole bucket of strange, not least because the current fighting almost perfectly mirrors the North/South split. The Iranian-backed, Shia Houthi rebels controlling the north (a.k.a., west), and the government and al Qaeda vye for control in the south (a.k.a., east).

The reason that North Yemen was called that even though it didn't go as far north as South Yemen is because the more heavily populated western part of the country is the important bit. South Yemen included a thin wedge of territory that ran all the way to the corner of the peninsula and included a slice of terrain in the south of the Yemeni heartland. Thus, South Yemen is considered the south because its slice of the Yemeni heartland is in the south. (The heartland panhandle that lends South Yemen its name accounted for a tiny sliver of the country. Thus, it was a gigantic synecdoche, a part of a whole used to refer to the whole, like saying wheels to refer to a car, or the beach to refer to a seaside community.) Likewise, the north has the rest of the Yemeni heartland to the north, which amounts to the west of the larger country of Yemen. Got it? Good.


A Yemeni government with a hankering to piss off the West could put the squeeze on a good part of the world's energy supply.

The larger eastern chunk of Yemen (nee South Yemen) has been ruled off and on by Yemeni kingdoms and sultanates for millennia, and as such is considered part of "Greater Yemen." The idea is that that today's Yemen should incorporate all the lands and possessions that various Yemeni rulers have had under their control at some point, but there are serious problems with that idea. Unfortunately, the logically shaky idea of a Greater Yemen keeps cropping up as the ideological equivalent of photobombing other discussions about Yemeni priorities and thinking.

For instance, the romantic vision of a Greater Yemen led some to characterize the 1990 merger as a reunification of Yemeni peoples, putting them together under the same banner for the first time in two centuries. But two centuries is plenty of time for people to grow apart, and the early enthusiasm about reunification quickly turned sour, led to a 1994 civil war, and continues to fuel the current fighting.

Restoring Yemen to its former theoretical glory would involve doubling down on the thinking that drove the 1990 reunification. Territories attributed to Greater Yemen include sizable chunks of neighboring Oman and Saudi Arabia — specifically the provinces of Jizan, Asir, and Najran. Najran in particular has unexploited oil reserves. Saudi Arabia's oldest wells are in some cases hitting the end of their lives, and Najran's oil reserves are part of the Saudi strategic reserve.


So the vagueness about existing borders, romanticism about past glories, and the potential for oil have been seized upon by one of the poorest countries in the Middle East as a very good reason to start pushing the Saudis on where, exactly, the lines on the map should be drawn. And the Saudis are none too keen about having a hostile Yemen on their southern border.

From the broader strategic perspective, Yemen overlooks the vital shipping lanes that pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb [Gateway of Tears]. While talk about Iran cutting off oil shipments at the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf has been the stuff of speculation for ages, people pay less attention to what ships do after exiting the Straits of Hormuz and before reaching the Suez Canal. Between these two well-known chokepoints, shipping must pass through the Bab el-Mandab. So a Yemeni government with a hankering to piss off the West could put the squeeze on a good part of the world's energy supply.

Despite dreams of a Greater Yemen, the country is a collection of tribes and clans more than a coherent, well-defined country. It is a major challenge to manage all those complex networks of shifting tribal loyalties. However, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who became the president of North Yemen in 1978 and then went on to become president of the newly unified Yemen in 1990, has displayed a particular talent for staying in power in a country crisscrossed by all manner of tribal, sectarian, and other divisions.


But that network of tribal and sectarian loyalties started coming apart in in 2004, when the Houthi political movement took root among Yemen's Shia population. Saudi Arabia, the US, and others tend to view the Houthi movement as another Iranian power grab, like the country's involvement in Lebanon, which empowered the Lebanese Shia and led to the establishment of Hezbollah. Today, Hezbollah effectively runs southern Lebanon as an Iranian proxy and has been a major Iranian power base critical to keeping pro-Assad forces in Syria afloat. Thus, the US and (especially) Saudi Arabia were pretty consistent in backing the Saleh government in its fight against the Houthi insurgency.

But there's also a major al Qaeda presence in Yemen. In 2009, al Qaeda in Yemen and al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia joined forces, forming al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). (Though al Qaeda had been bopping around in the Arabian hinterlands for quite some time — the group was responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000.)

It's hard to say how much of the rise of the Houthi movement was a response to al Qaeda activities and how much was pushing back against the central government. Likewise, it's hard to say how much of the al Qaeda presence in Yemen was just taking advantage of instability and a weak central government, how much was due to Yemen's role as an effective safe haven for al Qaeda activities aimed at the Saudi government, and how much was motivated by the presence of the large Shia population in northern Yemen.


For that matter, it's not exactly clear how beholden the Houthis really are to Iran. What someone tells you about that particular situation reveals more about the worldview of the person making the assertions than it does about facts on the ground. That the Houthis are fighting against Saudi meddling in their country, and doing so with Iranian support, is basically the position of Tehran. There are others who assert that the Houthis are receiving Iranian support, but also point out that the Houthi brand of Shia — the Zaidi sect — is very different from Iran's brand of Shia, and is actually closer to Sunni Islam than anything else, which means there isn't a close relationship between Iran and the Houthis, let alone a Hezbollah-type proxy. Those people aren't necessarily pro-Iran, but they're probably pretty hostile to any military intervention by the West or its allies. Finally, there are those who will go whole-hog on the theory that the Houthis are going to become a Yemeni version of Hezbollah. Those folks are usually animated by a deep distrust of Iran.

What's the truth? If I had to guess, I'd say that the Houthis have been dialing Tehran on the special Shia insurgency hotline, but that while they've asked for and received money — and probably weapons — that doesn't mean they're eager to hop in bed with Iran. Still, Iranian help is a bit like the ring from Lord of the Rings. The longer you have it, the more you want to keep it around and come to depend on its powers. Eventually, the ring becomes your master and converts you to a little Shia Islamist version of Gollum.


Anyway, despite Shia Houthi rebels in the northwest and al Qaeda in the northeast, Saleh — with the backing of the Saudis — was able to keep a lid on things more or less for a few years. Over time, however, the conflicts started taking their political toll on Saleh and his government, at least according to a leaked State Department cable.

When the Arab Spring swept across the region in 2011, and political strain outright ruptured. The Arab Spring was generally a bad deal for Middle Eastern dictators and strongmen like Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya, and Assad in Syria — and Saleh was no exception. Years of Saleh's rather talented corruption (a recent UN report found that he managed to skim a cool $60 billion off the top during his 33 years in power), on top of regional resentment and ongoing fighting meant he didn't have much of a chance against popular uprisings.

Saleh was ousted from power in 2012, leaving former vice president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in charge of the simmering feud that is Yemen. In addition to carrying on his predecessor's fight against the Houthis in the northwest, secessionists in the south, and al Qaeda in the northeast, Hadi has encountered an entirely new problem. Saleh apparently liked being president, and so joined forces with the Houthis while bringing along some loyal military units. Saleh's change of heart was apparently more than the central government and military could handle, and Yemen went from impending disaster to actual chaos in short order.


So now the Houthis having overrun the capital and ousted Hadi, turning Yemen from a ramshackle disaster into a slow-motion apocalypse.

The Houthis' rise has given Saudi Arabia the ammo it needs to get the entire Sunni world in line to support military action in Yemen; countries as far as Pakistan and Morocco are contributing military forces to counter the Houthis. So whether or not anyone else is buying the creeping Shia imperialism theory, the Sunnis certainly are. Thus, even if the Houthis weren't super enthusiastic about Iranian backing, they may find themselves choosing between getting pounded flat and accepting lots of Iranian help. Meanwhile, AQAP is going to do what Islamist groups love to do when everything falls apart: grab local power.

In the days since the capital fell, news out of Yemen has been a mishmash of speculation, drama, and legitimate surprises. There have been some rumors that the Iranians experienced a major intelligence failure and were caught by surprise. Speculation is rampant that the Saudi forces massed on the border will spearhead a coalition army advance into Yemen, touching off a major ground offensive. Meanwhile, reports are emerging that Chinese soldiers have arrived in the city of Aden to escort Chinese nationals out of the country. But none of that adds up to a clear-cut indication of what will happen in Yemen.

Related: Greed, brutality, and an unraveling coup in Yemen

However, zooming out to the regional level, there is one important outcome of the fighting in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has apparently been successful in not just dusting off the age-old dream of an effective pan-Arab military force — including significant participation by Egypt's large and respectable military — but taking that multinational force for a test drive. If a Saudi-led pan-Arab military does prove a success, it could be exactly what's needed to counter ISIS and Iran in Syria and Iraq. Further, if the Saudi manipulation of oil prices in advance of the airstrikes in Yemen come to be seen as a Saudi effort to protect the still-weak global economy against oil price instability, it will allay future concerns that Saudi-led military action against ISIS and Assad would lead to unmanageable global economic consequences.

Taken altogether, the rise of this Sunni pan-Arab force would finally fulfill the demands of Western countries who have grown tired of military interventions over the last 13 years, and who have been clamoring for countries in the region to take the lead in providing for their own security. And it might be just in time, as Yemen could be a precursor to broader conflict.

Or not. You never know with Yemen.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan